By Brent Cantrell
For the last sixteen years, while the United States military has leveraged advanced technologies in the land, air, maritime, and space domains to defeat insurgences and trans-regional Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO), our peer competitors have been standing on the sideline observing both our strengths and weaknesses. These potential competitors have identified that the US military’s greatest strength and vulnerability is its increasing reliance on the asymmetric advantage of space-based effects: position, navigation, and timing (PNT), beyond line of sight (BLOS) communications, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). These effects serve as the foundation on which the Joint Force build its tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and allow increased operational tempo and lethality. As stated by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, “Space has become deeply enmeshed in our plans, training, and operations and is central to our ways of deterring conflict, assuring our allies, and ultimately our warfighting.”
Our near-peer competitors altered their doctrine and are currently developing material solutions to deny the US military the asymmetric advantage of space in finite locations on the globe. In response to this new threat, the DoD shifted planning for the space domain from an effort that is assumed peaceful to one that is assumed contested. However, the current plans to protect space focus only on deterrence through international norms; branding an attack on one nation’s assets as an attack on the whole international community. The US does not have a plan or capability to defend our space assets if they are kinetically or non-kinetically attacked; we have no Defensive Counter Space system. Additionally, once these defenseless space assets are destroyed, the United States does not possess a way to rapidly replace them in order to restore the effects they provided back to the Joint Force, who presumably would be engaged in conflict with the nation that attacked these space assets. Instead, the US military operates under the assumption that it will lose when challenged in space and, therefore, focuses on training our Joint Forces to operate without space effects. Rather than ceding America’s asymmetric space advantage to the enemy, this paper argues that, after losing a space-based effect, the Air Force should focus on rapidly regaining regional space dominance through the operationalization and integration of near-space. The US must commit significant resources, shared equally across all Services, to update the space warfighting architecture and doctrine to counter the near-peer threat to America’s space dominance.
The first part of this article will define the current threats to space that near-peer competitors are developing. The second part will define near-space and provide historical background to explain why it has yet to be operationalized by the US military. The third part will propose how the Joint Force should invest time and resources into near-space. Finally, this article will conclude with recommended changes to doctrine and new materiel solutions that will allow the Joint Force to gain some of these capabilities.
Understanding the Threat to Space
Near-peer adversaries are actively improving their capabilities to limit the US military’s uninterrupted access to space-based effects. These potential adversaries are not focusing on the entire space domain. Instead, they are focusing their efforts on denying the US access to space in specific regions of the world. These nations assume that if they can remove US space effects before fighting begins, then the US will be unwilling to accept the risk of military conflict. In their estimation, a loss of regional space capabilities would force US decision makers to withdraw and sue for peace on the adversary’s terms.
These nations are developing offensive space capabilities that will allow them a spectrum of escalation from temporarily blinding optics and jamming transmissions to disabling onboard electronics to shooting down satellites. In 2007, China launched a missile that destroyed its own weather satellite. The US saw this test as a demonstration of the current capabilities China has and will continue to develop to disrupt the US advantage in space in and around the South China Sea. In concert with these kinetic capabilities, our adversaries have created sophisticated non-kinetic systems such as radars to track and target satellites and lasers to destroy onboard electronics or simply blind electronic/optical sensors, as well as high-energy directional electromagnetic weapons to jam signals to and from space. In order for the US to retain the asymmetric advantage afforded by space effects, the Air Force’s space forces must think and operate in new innovate ways. One avenue of innovation includes exploring the possibility of operating in near-space.
What is Near-Space and Who “Owns It”?
In their paper, Balloons in Today’s Military, Col Dahl and Lt Col Tomme define near-space “as the region between about 65,000 and 325,000 feet.” While these altitudes fall inside the DOD and international definition of the air domain, this region is more similar to the vacuum environment of the space domain than to the atmospheric environment of the air domain. Near-space is above the troposphere, which is a section of the atmosphere below 35,000 feet where the majority of weather occurs. The area above the troposphere has few clouds, thunderstorms, or precipitation and therefore lacks the turbulence and strong winds that are the bane of airplanes, drones, and large balloons at lower altitudes. In some regions of near-space between 65,000 and 80,000 feet average winds are less than 20 knots, with peak winds no greater than 45 knots. Temperatures in these regions do not support human activity; the average temperature ranges from -60 to -52oC. The air is so thin that traditional air-breathing engines and wings do not provide enough thrust or lift to work effectively. However, balloons can work effectively at these altitudes, and provide space-effects to augment or backfill satellite capabilities.
From this altitude, each balloon system proved effects in areas over 600 statute miles wide. This region may seem like a mini-space domain that is closer to the earth. However, there are two crucial characteristics that set it apart from space. First, this region is too low in altitude to sustain orbital flight around the planet. Therefore, to remain aloft some sort of upward lift is required to remain airborne. Second, while no air control agency provides positive control in this airspace, international law still recognizes national land boundaries. In addition to international law, the DOD’s Unified Command Plan (the guidance that defines a Geographic Combatant Command’s (GCC) area of responsibility) designates this region of the sky as the responsibility of the Geographic Combatant Commander who is responsible for the land below it. Therefore, operating assets in near space requires obtaining overflight rights to overfly sovereign territory and coordination with the responsible GCC staff. Since the unique characteristics of near-space do not allow for easy operation of assets designed for the air or space domains, the US military has historically struggled to operationalize this region.
Figure 1: Graphical Depiction of the Gaps Filled by Near-Space
In 2005, General John P. Jumper, then the Air Force Chief of Staff, recognized that a “cultural blind spot (existed in the Air Force) – where near-space was too high up for aircraft, but too low for satellites.” In an attempt to illuminate this cultural blind spot, Gen Jumper, assigned Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) the responsibility for near-space and the development and operation of what he called operationally responsive space (ORS) capabilities. In response to this task, AFSPC created the Joint Warfighting Space (JWS) initiative to develop capabilities to harness the advantages of near-space. The goal of JWS was to create hundreds of near-space systems that could be rapidly deployed to support combatant command tactical requirements for effects typically provided by space assets.
However, these JWS systems did not fit the culture of AFSPC for four reasons. First, they required less technical means to launch. These systems resembled large weather balloons that will free float from the surface of the earth to the stratosphere. Due to the method of launch, they would have required AFSPC to deploy forces to establish and maintain multiple mobile launch sites outside the United States that would support hundreds of launches each year. This launch requirement is in stark contrast to AFSPC historic requirements of two static and established launch sites in the US that support a handful of rocket launches per year. Second, these systems would act more like a system of systems requiring constant monitoring and control to ensure that old balloons losing altitude are constantly being replaced with new ones to ensure reliable coverage over a theater of operations. This is in contrast to the historic model of maintaining satellite orbits where each system only requires small course corrections and health monitoring daily. Finally, these near-space systems, in 2005, had an on station time from 2 to 7 days requiring more to be launched as replacements once the old ones started to drift out of place or fall back to Earth. For comparison, today, commercial companies are flying these systems for up to 100 days. In contrast, the AFSPC culture was built to support systems that remained on-station for decades and whose replacements were designed and planned over several years. With the failure of JWS, the DOD and USAF remain in the same position today that they were in 2005: a cultural blind spot still exists. Because we can’t fly a plane in near-space, the USAF’s Air Combat Command does not want to own it. Correspondingly, because we can’t launch an object into a decade’s long orbit into near-space, AFSPC does not want to own it. Because of this, NO ONE “OWNS RESPONSIBILITY” FOR NEAR-SPACE. To make near-space a reliable capability for the Joint Force, the USAF will need to take ownership and lead an internal organizational change, a DOD doctrinal change, and a significant material investment.
Balloons; Really…It’s the Twenty First Century…
The characteristics of near-space make lighter-than-air vehicles (large balloons or extremely large wing span airplanes) ideal platforms for operating in this region. The Joint Force can deploy balloons rapidly from any location in the land or sea domains and reach operational altitudes in less than two hours. Balloons are extremely cheap, and — as modern electronics and commercial optics continue to decrease in cost — they will become even more cost effective compared to conventional satellites. Winds in near-space are very stable, which allows lighter than air systems to stay on station, over a military theater of operations, from several days to several months depending on size, season, and location. Commercial companies are focusing on increasing the duration and consistency of flights and recently succeed in sustained flights over 100 or more days. With miniaturized electronics and optics, near-space assets can provide military theaters of operations with effects that equal – or often rival – those currently received from satellites. For example, most communications satellites orbit the globe at 35,000 kilometers above the Earth, 1,000-2,000 times further than near-space assets. To transmit to a near-space system, the ground terminal requires much lower power than it would to transmit to a communication satellite, allowing near-space radios to be much smaller. Additionally, transmission to near-space systems are faster allowing IP connectivity to seem much faster on the application level; it does not take an eternity to load a webpage or download the latest image.
Near-space lighter-than-air platforms are inherently more survivable than satellites. They have “small radar and thermal cross sections, making them fairly invulnerable to most traditional tracking and targeting methods.” Since they move more slowly than traditional airborne targets, they are harder to track due to their lack of high pulse repetition frequency (HPRF) Doppler shift. Since balloons do not burn fuel and use significantly less power to communicate with the ground, they are also very hard to track via heat and electromagnetic signature. At near-space altitudes, they are very small optical targets, showing up well only during dawn and dusk when they contrast with the sky. Therefore, the acquisition and tracking of these balloons would be very difficult. Near-space assets would also be harder to jam because they are significantly closer to the ground than satellites. They require a larger jam-to-signal power over the enemy’s tactical jammers to be effectively degraded.
Anti-Satellite Missiles (ASAT) and lasers could be a threat, but their probability of kill would likely be low. Completing the intercept would be difficult due to the small size and minimal heat signature, which challenge even the most advanced target detection and detonation devices used in modern ASATs. Economics are in the favor of the near-space assets in this type of space denial exchange. Inexpensive, quickly replaceable, near-space platforms versus the multi-million dollar cost of ASAT missiles would rapidly make it cost prohibitive to target these assets. Additionally, the extremely low cost of launch and vastness of the near-space region encourages the launch of multiple decoy balloons making the targeting problem even more challenging. Today, against a near peer adversary with regional space denial capabilities, near-space assets will be more survivable and have a lower likelihood of being jammed than our current space assets. In the short term our increased experimentation with near-space assets will most likely force our adversary to divert military research resources away from their high-end, space-based antisatellite systems to improve their tracking and acquisition systems against these simple and cost effective near-space systems. The objective would be the same effect our experiments with space-based missile defense had on the Soviets during the end of the cold war – they dedicated more resources to catching up than we did to the actual system.
Permanently Remove Near-Space from the Cultural Blind Spot
The following doctrinal changes and material solutions are recommended to facilitate the operationalization of Near-space.
Because near-space effects are closely linked to current and future space-based effects, the USAF should lead an effort to add near-space as an additional “unique characteristics of space” in Joint Publication 3-14. Additionally, the USAF should lobby to have the term near-space defined in JP 3-14 as “the region between about 65,000 and 325,000 feet.” Additionally, JP 3-14 should assign responsibility for ownership and coordination of all DOD actions in near-space to the Joint Force Space Component Commander (JFSPCC) of each Geographic Combatant Commander. Giving the same organization responsibility for both space and near-space control in each region will ensure that efforts in these two regions are complementary and synchronized as the US begins to develop a capability for assured space effects against anti-space capable adversaries.
The USAF should stand up near-space squadrons that are responsible for the operational deployment of near-space assets. These organizations would be responsible for flying near-space missions as assigned by the JFSPCC in each Geographic Combat Command. In addition to these squadrons, the Air Force should modify their Air Operations Centers (AOC) to include coordination and integration with the JFSPCC for both tasking near-space operations in the ATO as well as constantly controlling these assets in the GCC AOR. While these assets ascend from the ground to near space they will need to be de-conflicted with air assets to ensure no collisions occur. Similar to traditional air assets, these near-space assets should be centrally controlled and decentrally executed.
In the conclusion of his 2007 thesis, Should the AFSPC take control of its shores?, Lt Col Kurt Hall argued that the AF should let the “commercial companies and universities mature the technology [lighter than air system design, control via Artificial Intelligence, Compressed and robust telecommunications protocols, and increase to duration] and monitor their progress rather than invest large budgets and man-hours. When the technology reaches maturity (most likely 10-15 years from now), then AFSPC should begin investing.” As we face near peer competitors who are currently deploying regionally focused anti-space systems, we can no longer have a passive mentality. The DOD, led by AFSPC, must actively partner with industry to aggressively experiment with and deploy near-space systems that can adequately augment — and if required, temporarily replace — our current space systems. However, the US still has an advantage because American companies are currently leading a revolution in access to near-space. These companies are pioneering the ability to provide inexpensive communications and reliable communication connectivity, to include LTE/4G from near-space. Figure 2 depicts a current near-space endeavor that combines balloons with advanced artificially intelligent cyber systems that leverage near-space to deliver internet to the masses. Additionally, the US should expand the use of these systems with as many coalition military partners as possible. Expanding their use in these countries will allow the US to build a global capability as well as increase historic knowledge of seasonal weather patterns in the stratosphere and allow for greater accuracy when predicting system duration and replacement times.
Figure 2: Graphical Depiction of How Industry is Extending 4G/LTE From Near-Space.
Over the last twenty years, adversaries have observed the asymmetric advantage the US receives from integrated multi-domain operations. They have invested heavily in technology, doctrine, and training to deny that advantage in discrete regions for a fraction of the cost. In order to retain its asymmetric advantage, the US will need to think and act creatively, understanding that what worked yesterday will not work tomorrow. Integrating low cost near-space balloon technology with cyber, space, air, maritime, and land forces will operationalize near-space and allow the US to retain its asymmetric advantage over future adversaries. However, if the DOD is to leverage this capability, it must break the old traditions of “ownership” and truly partner across Services and functional and geographic commands to integrate this capability.
Maj Brent Cantrell is currently a student at the Air Command and Staff College. He is a Marine Corps communications officer with an operational background in amphibious operations, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency. He has served in Iraq and the Horn of Africa with several Expeditionary Marine and Special Operations Commands. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy and Naval Post Graduate School, he will begin his assignment with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 2 Marine Expeditionary Force, in July 2017.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.